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Tea and Prosperity Along Ancient Trade Route
Mengmai, People's Republic of China - When the Na sisters pick tea from their trees, they are maintaining a tradition and livelihood that has been passed down through their family for centuries. Tea is the bedrock of their income: Even though some of the trees are over a thousand years old, they have always represented a prosperous future.
"We have these trees from our ancestors," says Guo. "They are our luck."
In the far southwest of People's Republic of China (PRC), Guo and her sister Wa are part of the rich and ancient tradition of Pu'er tea, which has played an essential part of the history and development in this area. The constant commercial trade of tea along the routes of ancient southwest PRC and Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) led to an entire 2,500 kilometer stretch of road being named Chamadao or the Tea Horse Road sometime during the Tang dynasty.
Today, much of the route still exists. Despite the exoticism of the Tea Horse Road legend, the road traverses some of Asia's poorest areas. But a new ADB-supported road following the Tea Horse pathway has enhanced the region's potential for economic growth.
Route 3, stretching from PRC through Lao PDR, allows the Na sisters to get their tea to wholesalers on a paved all-season road: Before, it was a backbreaking walk on a rough dirt path, tea-laden baskets on their backs. The ease and efficiency of the road has made business easier, bringing more profits for them and a stronger economy for their region. Motorbikes, a television, and a karaoke machine have all found their way into the Na household—items that the family could have only dreamed about before Route 3.
The road has not just improved the exotic tea trade. The extraordinary benefits of an all-weather road can be seen in health, education, tourism, quality of life, and entrepreneurialism.
"Route 3 has created a better quality of living for people in rural areas, who are often poor merely because they are so isolated", says Kunio Senga, director general of ADB's Southeast Asia Department. "That a road can improve quality of life for so many people is one of the great unsung stories of development work. The wide reaching benefits that a well built road brings to a village, a province, a country are quite simply, extraordinary."
With three children in school, Khammy Sikhounsaeng has to work hard to make sure they complete their education. From his home in Luang Namtha Province in northern Lao PDR, he buys straw from local growers and bundles it up to sell wholesale across the border in PRC.
The new Route 3 has made a substantial impact on Sikhounsaeng's business. It has cut travelling time down by about 400%. A new streamlined customs process at the border allows Sikhounsaeng to trade more efficiently. As a result, the business' profits have soared and now the family makes around $1200 a month—an excellent income for the area.
Entrepreneurs in Thailand have not been left out of the benefits. In Chiang Rai, day markets—always a central part of that northern town's community—have boomed as goods from PRC and Lao PDR arrive more quickly and efficiently through Route 3.
Kriangrai Samsakultuda has a stall at Tesaban Market. He said that products from PRC used to come to the market via Bangkok at higher price. Now they come down Route 3. "They get to us at a cheaper price," said Samsakultuda. Soon there would be a big distribution center in Lao PDR, he said, which would be even better.
But a new road is not all about profits, although profits will often decide if children stay in school, and families can afford quality health care. With hospitals more accessible because of paved roads, time—often a life or death factor—can be radically slashed off travel to medical assistance. "We used to have to walk to the health center and it would take us over an hour," said one village elder in rural Lao PDR. "Now on the motorbike, we get there in ten minutes."
Initiatives like roads do not, unfortunately, come cost-free. At Luang Namtha Provincial Hospital, new equipment and an ambulance funded by ADB may have benefited the medical staff who formerly struggled with few modern tools, but they have also been used for road accident victims, whose numbers are increasing. And with long distance truck drivers now including Route 3 on their route, the potential for increased HIV transmission has also become a concern.
Despite these increased risks, most people are pleased with the new road. "There's been an improvement across the board," says Phanhthong Phitthoumma, vice governor of the province. "Socioeconomic development has significantly increased. The transport of goods and tourism has gone up." Says Phitthoumma, there is more trade with PRC and investment has significantly increased.
Like many along Route 3, the Na sisters and their family share in the benefits. They may say their ancient tea trees are lucky, but the new road has complemented their hard work, bringing them prosperity they never dreamed possible.